In a 30-plus-year career as one of the most original and compelling photography-based artists around, Lorna Simpson has recently become, of all things, a painter. The evidence is breathtaking in the four king-size canvases in her studio in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn—one is nine feet by twelve, the others are eight by nine. In the picture that’s closest to being finished, white, glacier-like forms sink into what could be a blue-black Arctic sea, while boiling volcanic clouds build up overhead. Nature hasn’t looked this turbulent in a painting since J.M.W. Turner.
“At first I was a little intimidated about working this way,” Simpson says. “It seemed absurd. I know so many amazing painters. I thought, Really, Lorna? You’re going to take up that gauntlet?” She bursts out laughing. “And then I thought, Aw, fuck it. You fail, you fail. So what?”
The last few years have been transformative for Lorna—changing galleries, making paintings, and charting a new postmarital life with old friends and new ones. She turned 57 in August, but you’d never know it—thanks to aerobics and ashtanga yoga, a joyous self-confidence she’s had since early childhood, and Zora Casebere, her bewitching nineteen-year-old daughter (a?sophomore at Columbia University). Lorna is also beautiful, dressed today in black leather pants, a black T-shirt, and a black Prada fur jacket. (Black is her default color, unless she’s wearing something outrageously colorful by her good friend Duro Olowu.) The Prada is real, but the fur is fake. “I?was walking down the street and the PETA people were asking, ‘Is that real?’ I was like, ‘Come on!’ ” (Another big guffaw.) “ ‘Guys. Know your fashion. Real doesn’t look like this.’ ”
We’re in a light-filled, 22-foot-high room that opens onto a walled garden, in the house Lorna currently uses as a studio. (Her new studio, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, is still under construction.) The four-story house is by David Adjaye, his first in New York City. It was designed as an office, library, and viewing space for Lorna and her then husband, the artist James Casebere. (They were divorced last summer, and she bought out his share.) Completed in 2006, it’s a pretty stunning work of art in its own right. Its ground-floor kitchen, with appliances set into a poured-concrete counter, is a place she loves to entertain. She and Okwui Enwezor, director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst and of the 2015 Venice Biennale, once cooked a lamb-and-lobster New Year’s Eve dinner here for 70 guests, all close friends of their warmhearted host.
“There’s a joke about a friend being someone who will help you move,” the artist Glenn Ligon, one of her closest friends, says.“But a true friend is someone who will help you move a body. Lorna is a true friend.”
Adjaye says of Lorna, “She was the first person to commission me after seeing my work in London. She was a really thoughtful and engaged client, always supporting the idea behind it.”
The new paintings we’re looking at will be in Simpson’s debut show with the mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth, which she joined a year ago. (It opens at their London space on March 1.) After three decades of risk-taking and often defiant conceptual work combining photographs and texts, collage, video, film, drawing, sculpture, and installation, Lorna is still pushing boundaries and breaking new ground. The images she puts into the world are consistent proof of art’s ability to deal with loaded questions involving race, gender, identity, sex, and other social and political dilemmas.
“Lorna’s work marked a powerful turning point in contemporary art in the mid-1980s,” says Joan Simon, who curated Simpson’s 2013 traveling retrospective. “I still remember the first pieces she exhibited in New York and how prescient her words were about today’s concerns.” Simon cites as an example Lorna’s 1986 Waterbearer, a striking image of a young black woman seen from behind, pouring water from a silver pitcher in one hand and from a plastic jug in the other. Under the image, the text reads:
She saw him disappear by the river,
They asked her to tell what happened,
Only to discount her memory.
As Ligon tells me, “Lorna’s work opened up a space to talk about black interiority at a moment when the culture was obsessed with black spectacle, not black introspection.”
Lorna lives in a Federal-style brick town house around the corner from the one Adjaye made for her. She bought it when she was 28, in the neighborhood where she spent her early childhood. Her father, Elian, a social worker, had grown up in Cuba and Jamaica and came to the United States in 1958, just before Castro took over. Her mother, Eleanor, a secretary and administrator at a Manhattan hospital, is from Chicago by way of New Orleans. Both parents were culturally aware. “They were constantly going to music and dance and theater performances, and also to museums,” Lorna, their only child, remembers, “and I was taken everywhere with them. I would see things that were completely over my head, but I’d be fascinated.”
She saw Hair when she was seven and remembers “covering my eyes and saying, ‘Oh, God. What are they doing?’ ” A few years later, the premiere of Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Banzi Is Dead gave her “the idea of what apartheid was about.” One of the most riveting works in the 2002 Whitney Biennial was Simpson’s film of fifteen pairs of lips, all humming the music to the Rodgers and Hart song “It’s Easy to Remember.” The New York Times’s Holland Cotter wrote that “when the film made its debut . . . after September 11, its poignancy was almost unbearable.”
Lorna attended Manhattan’s High School of Art and Design, and later the School of Visual Arts, “because what else was I going to do?” she says, laughing. Even before high school, she had started taking photographs. Sick with the flu one winter, she discovered that if she cut off the coupons on the back of enough Kleenex boxes and sent them in, she could get a free Polaroid camera. She did that and took countless pictures of her dog—a small beagle-collie mix. At SVA, she majored in photography, a form she felt “opened up a dialogue with the world.”
When she was a student, her world began expanding rapidly. She won an internship at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which brought her into contact with the charismatic artist David Hammons, who was in residence there. “The broad scope in which Hammons worked from found objects, and the way he made his art, really opened my eyes to how there are no rules or labels to being an artist,” she says.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, and a host of young performance artists were shaking up the New York art scene, and Lorna spent many evenings hanging out at the Mudd Club, CBGB’s, and other meeting places on the Lower East Side. She also traveled (with a boyfriend) to Europe and North Africa—Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia, Algeria—and took hundreds of documentary photos in the classic tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Roy DeCarava. She was struck by how few black photographers made it into the canon of art history in her photography classes.
Lorna graduated early from SVA and was doing graphic-design work for a travel company when she met Carrie Mae Weems, a graduate art student at the University of California, San Diego. Weems suggested she come out to graduate school in California. “It was a rainy, icy New York evening, and that sounded really good to me,” Simpson says. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into.” She knew she’d had enough of documentary street photography. Conceptual art ruled at UCSD, and in her two years there, from 1983 to 1985, Lorna found her signature voice, combining photographs and text to address issues that confront African American women. “I loved writing poetry and stories, but at school, that was a separate activity from photography,” she says. “I thought, Why not merge those two things?”
Her graduate thesis combined six large photographs of a muscular young black man in white pants and a white T-shirt. He’s shown in different poses, but we don’t see his face. Blocks of text beneath the images suggest fragmentary and somewhat disturbing narratives having to do with girl trouble, problems finding a job, racial profiling. She got very little response to the piece from the faculty. “I didn’t even know if they were going to let me graduate,” she recalls. (They did.)
Back in New York, the work attracted immediate attention when it was shown at the Alternative Museum. “I had a career because of it,” Lorna says. More image-and-text pieces followed, with African American women as models. They were usually shown from behind, wearing simple white garments and accompanied by brief texts or single words evoking aspects of black women’s lives—hairdos, wigs, sexism, feeling invisible.
Simpson had been supporting herself with a string of part-time receptionist jobs. By the early 1990s, she had been married and divorced (from a former boyfriend in grad school) and was selling enough work to say goodbye to those jobs—she was also renovating her Brooklyn town house “on a shoestring.” Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem and now a close friend of Simpson’s, first encountered her work at this time, reproduced in the Village Voice when Golden was a student at Smith College. “It looked like nothing I had seen,” Golden says, “nothing like what I was being taught art was or could be.”
Lorna’s career was in full swing. Over the next decade, her work expanded into other media (video, sculpture) and was shown widely, including at the 1990 Venice Biennale, where she was one of the first African American women to appear. She met James Casebere, and their daughter, Zora, was born. Lorna made video pieces throughout her pregnancy and took two-month-old Zora along on a residency in Japan. “I felt I had to incorporate giving her my attention while making art.” In 2006, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, the disease that had killed her mother thirteen years before. The doctors caught it early. Lorna survived and kept right on working. She left Sean Kelly, and was represented by Jeanne Greenberg’s Salon 94 gallery for the next ten years. The Adjaye house was finished that same year.
As Sarah Lewis, who teaches art, African, and African American history at Harvard, puts it, “Lorna is dauntless. She can ask a question that will make you want to rethink your entire life.”
On the second floor of the Adjaye house, a series of human-scale panels depicts a pair of images silk-screened in various combinations. One shows a woman lying facedown on a bed, fully dressed and with her shoes on. In the other a woman stands precariously on the outside window ledge of a brick building. Both are found photographs—Lorna has been using found images since 2010, when she came upon a bunch of her grandmother’s Ebony and Jet magazines. The sleeping woman was from Ebony, the one on the ledge from an Associated Press story.
For Simpson, the women exist between a kind of dream state and one of anxiety, a condition that resonates with our political moment. This work, she says, will be central to her London show, along with sculptures made from stacks of old Ebony and Jet magazines with solid glass blocks on top of them.
We drive the short distance in her somewhat cluttered 2011 silver Volvo to the house Lorna lives in. Tara, her large and wolflike Native American Indian dog, greets us enthusiastically. Here artworks by Lorna are conspicuous by their absence, but there’s no shortage of paintings, drawings, and sculptures by her artist friends—Ligon, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Wangechi Mutu. (Mutu was the star of Simpson’s 2003 Corridor video, in which she enacts two roles—a black house servant in 1860 and a well-to-do black suburbanite in 1960.) I ask her whether she’s ever thought about making a feature film. “That’s exciting to me,” she says. “I could see doing that. I love directing.”
You have a ready-made female lead in Zora, I suggest—star of J.Crew catalogs and her own Instagram videos. Right now she’s in L.A., where she’s one of eight young women in the cast of a film called Ladyworld (directed by Amanda Kramer). One of Lorna’s big laughs rings out, and she says, “My daughter would disown me if I didn’t write a major role for her.”
In this story:
Sittings Editor: Phyllis Posnick.
Hair: Edris Nichols; Makeup: Margret Avery.
Tailor: Cha Cha Zuctic.
Set Design: Mary Howard.